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«Thinking / Transferring / Acting » – Interview with Felipe Castelblanco

"Nowhere Islands" © Felipe Castelblanco

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Felipe Castelblanco
Carolina Martinez

July, 2020

By Carolina Martinez

In recent months, the whole world has been telling a story together, without having agreed upon it. Usually, different stories and events that take place in various sites are assembled under a common narrative which is interpreted as the reality of a moment, space, and time.  

At this moment, the «COINCIDENCIA» program wishes to enable the meeting of ideas, hopes, fears, criticisms, and different forms of human and artistic expression in order to discuss, together, what new ways, models, and languages we can project for a post-Coronavirus world. 

Cartographies of the Unseen" shown at WildPalms Gallery in March 2020 © Felipe Castelblanco
Cartographies of the Unseen” shown at WildPalms Gallery in March 2020 © Felipe Castelblanco

CAROLINA MARTINEZ: We are in a period of collective adaptation,a situation and moment around which there has been enough reflection on the individual and global impact, where we are managing to see a mutation, and with it, the danger of change. Can we recognize that dangerous potency? Where and in what ways is this latency manifested? 

FELIPE CASTELBLANCO: I guess, today more than ever, the world has closed onto itself. By this, I mean that people all over can grasp an understanding of the planet as bounding and interconnected system in ways that we couldn’t before, even though before we still had globalization, gravity, and Elon Musk.  

On the one hand, maybe a positive side of the pandemic is to realize that only a real coordinated effort (or a sacrifice) among all societies can help to contain planetary threats. We have seen how a virus spreads, city by city, and how all of us are at risk, so the only hope is that our neighbours, out of sheer common sense, stick to the same rules as us. However, the challenge is that all distances have collapsed and, suddenly, our friends in Sydney and L.A are a lot closer than those living across the street, who out of «contagious fears» might not even say hello. Paradoxically, these distant but «connected» friends won’t help us vote in the next responsible leader for our cities or support the struggling small bookstore, craft shop or community hub in our neighbourhoods.  

On the other hand, this situation reminds us that we are temporary residents in this world, and the pandemic renders all our systems and cultures fleeting, fragile or even completely unnecessary. Is it true that we need to travel across busy cities to attend a talk, a meeting or even fly hundreds of miles to see and be «seen» at trendy art events? This period revealed how badly equipped most of us in the cultural sectors have become when it comes to helping bridge bigger temporal scales or circulate messages via any means other than a digital screen. It is as if many of us had forgotten the lessons of the last few centuries, where there were also pandemics and limited travel, but also, numerous ways in which people remained connected, creative and accountable to their local context and historical moment. Maybe with a slow economy and increasing energy and climate crisis, at the end of the day the screens will turn off for good and the images and words of this period will fade away too. I fear that Covid-19 will not be remembered by the freely-moving output of creative and cultural movements, but by the hole that social media will leave behind once their servers need to be erased to make room for yet another world event.  

Still from Driftless © Felipe Castelblanco
Still from Driftless © Felipe Castelblanco


CM: The opening of what happens in the fields of art and science, and of knowledge, in general, is possible thanks to communication and, above all, transmission, which is what «COINCIDENCIA» has proposed to do since its beginning as a program. In this sense, the exchange of dialogues has been manifested through trips, residencies, exhibitions, and other projects: instances that today have had to seek a reconfiguration. In face of this new scenario, how do you think we could achieve this exchange today and in the future? What new experiences can have an impact on the transfer? 

FC: There is no doubt that some things will stop being as global as they were before. In that sense, international cultural exchanges will suffer tremendously while, perhaps, Internet formats for cultural events and exchanges will become more popular. For example, last night I attended a «virtual opening» in Karlsruhe (Germany) right after a meeting with young filmmakers in Colombia, all without leaving my studio in Basel. Obviously, these online formats open up the field to new and seasoned creators, audiences and stakeholders to come together in more inclusive ways but for me, the issues still are: what happens with those that havlimited Internet access? Or how do we make sure the experience sticks and that dialogues lead to actions in offline worlds? 

Whereas before we had support for research via field trips or residencies for artists and curators, now we have to be flexible and consider support for remote, even online research; involve those living in the target sites as co-producers/co-researchers; change the logic of the creator as an identity that delivers finished or unique outputs and, instead, welcome assemblies made of communities and creators that initiate processes, producing multiple responses and establishing reciprocal research or exchanges. The time is also right to bring back mail-art, performative instructions and re-enactments, or DYI publication formats that can be reprinted anywhere and, with them, put us back on the creative path that allows artists/makers/shakers a complete reconfiguration of authorship.  


CM: The instability that the world and we are feeling makes us aware of our fragility,where the future has acquired a new meaning.We came to a halt together and we are living what we could call a «waiting» time. How have you manifested in your work this present that somehow, for now, has only itself? Is it possible to think about the future and, thereby, imagine new forms that your work could take? 

FC: The way I see it, the pandemic has put in jeopardy the future but also the projections, values, and models that we had built around arts professionalization, productivity as visibility or even cultural entrepreneurship. I think my «future» work is precisely to undo my own expectations and blind trust on those values that sometimes put «creativity as productivity», which we cherish in the European cultural spheres.  

I rather now be moved by urgency than by the need to stay productive as a way to stay visible in our cultural networks. For example, right before the quarantine measures, I was filming and doing fieldwork in the Colombian Amazon as part of a COINICIDENCIA supported project. Only days after my return to Basel, and because of the lockdown in Colombia, forest fires had reignited, paramilitary presence had increased, and mining operations had resumed near the city of Mocoa. With plenty of time in my hands while in quarantine in Basel, I focused on editing and quietly circulating lots of short video essays as a way to support my indigenous collaborators back in the region. At times, I felt disconnected from the more intellectual and critical discourses around online cultures, societal redesign, degrowth, etc., coming through the Instagram accounts of my peers, galleries, and museums all over. Depending on how you see it, these couple of months could have been for me both artistically «unproductive» because of my dread to engage with the social media «art world», or yet, extremely creative because they were fuelled by undeniable urgency.  

As artists, I do think we need to stop for a second and think twice why is it that our creative industries have been considered non-essential; since when the type of traveling we do for work, in most cases, relies solely on airlines that burn through so much fuel and tax subsidies; and finally, why have we become so dependent on continued «creative production» to stay visible and feed our hungry cultural machines? Of course, I do not hold a higher moral ground on this. Instead, I am an emerging artist with only a lot of air miles to prove my humble success. In any case, when I look back at the last two months, no future seems more promising than a past where there was a stronger social welfare system, when societies used less fossil fuels, when remote communities still enjoyed food and territorial sovereignty and, finally, when not all relevant art hung out of an Instagram or Facebook wall.  

"Nowhere Islands" © Felipe Castelblanco
“Nowhere Islands” © Felipe Castelblanco

CM: Activist art and in public space attempts to generate changes, to think of systems and processes, and to manage to open a window of reflection and criticism to people. How can this common space and with certain freedom (we know that it actually is not) be reoccupied after the art system and its way of communicating, expressing, and creating has been mutating? Can artivism attempt the emancipation of bodies and society again? How? 

FC: Although art and social change sound like nice words next to each other, we cannot expect that one will come from the other. Many artists-activists actually struggle to fit within quite limiting artistic spheres: academia, markets, cultural institutions or even the heavily regulated urban public space. Perhaps, artists have not yet emancipated themselves from the constraints of our own invented and, at times, disarming cultural traditions. From that position, we often feel powerless to produce a broader political discourse, offer concrete ideas to affect policy or to effectively transform governance, even if we strive for social change. However, as the professional boundaries blur, I believe that artists can too infiltrate or even cooperate more closely with state structures, but only if we recognize that handling power and information effectively is also a creative activity worth our time. As Nato Thompson put it, the problem is that «seeing power» is an essential artistic skill but it is rarely taught at art schools or made profitable for galleries or collectors, hence it is still a creative method with little traction. Of course, it would be nice if more art professionals saw «artivism» projects as crash-courses on power,and the critics let go their self-indulgent cultural analysis that often render these practices less provocative or a bit didactic (as in crappy art).    

Therefore, politically driven artists, like any other professionals, need to find values in parallel communities, processes and attitudes outside the artistic field and, with them, be able to challenge self-imposed predeterminism, economic pressure and aesthetic expectations. In other words, maintaining a porous practice and the door open for unlikely exchanges and cooperation between disciplines can elevate the potential of art to contribute to social change. There are numerous cases where artists have worked closely with political groups or gained a political voice (think of Joseph Beuys’s Green Party or the terrible example of Hitler as a frustrated painter turned into dictator). However, there are fewer cases where artists have actually contributed to new societal structures or engaged with power and state-building efforts as a craft. In its most literal sense, writers like Tirdad Zolghard or Suhail Malik have entertained the question and even advocated for a type of art as state-craft or state-craft art, meaning emergent forms of creative practices that bring activism, art-making, politics and cultural critique into a mix that delivers artistic modes fully equipped to engage with highly technocratic state-apparatuses. In that sense, dealing creatively with power becomes as, if not more important than dealing with meaning-making.  

For artists like myself working on social and environmental justice issues, this is an opportunity to rethink our tactics but also to prepare for an even harder battle, at the level of power and meaning, that is yet to come. Even in the last two months, we have seen a quick shift in power balance across regions and how all of the sudden, the pandemic has helped the economic priorities of the neoliberal states while negating all recent calls to action from community-led initiatives striving for structural societal change (from Santiago de Chile to Bogotá, Basel to Johannesburg, or Hong Kong to Minneapolis).   

We must now adjust quickly to new rules and new displays of power. This will make the coming post-pandemic world a lot harsher for those still working and resisting against social inequalities, extractive industries, and dilutional politicians selling misleading recovery policies. In the meantime, artists, like pretty much any other person alive today, can choose a life of service to society and through it, produce new values, situations, cultural codes, metaphors but, most importantly, new and lasting alliances.  


CM: The experiences of exchange and dialogue are fundamental in your practice. Have you thought of new ways to include this crisis and change in your action? How can the exchange of experiences, thoughts, and cultures be generated in the near future?

FC: Perhaps Covid-19 finally put an end to the fast pace of modern life by forcing us to cocoon and to reset our understanding of social interactions and the amount of space needed to carry on with our lives. For the last two months, we have slowed-down and kept social-distancing measures while the industrial world, and some of its terrible practices, have sped up. For example, the number of unreported crimes against people and nature in the Colombian Amazon, where oil, water, and minerals are extracted non-strop by multinational conglomerates, has increased while activists, journalists and NGOs have been unable to do their work because of the quarantine.  

Throughout this crisis, I have been considering how most creatives can indulge in almost completely different temporalities than most people and across industries. This experience has made me realise that as artists, we speak slowly with the moment and, by doing so, we contribute towards a collective and multimodal memory of our societies. So, we must honour such privilege with reciprocity and make sure our work allows others to experience life or engage with events also in slightly unique temporalities. In my case, I have rediscovered the power of film and storytelling (even as non-linear or confined to a single screen) to lure viewers into a state of mind where they can look at nature more attentively, where there is chance for internal dialogue and an exchange with the world outside them. Also, my current research has brought me closer to the work and suffering of brave land protectors and community leaders in the Southwest of Colombia, whose struggle needs to be supported at all levels, even through «audio-visual translation» of that which is so conceptually or emotionally complex that words alone cannot get across. Therefore, I am starting to see my work also as a platform that can position not only my discourse but offer a space for many people to sustain a transforming dialogue among each other, even mediate through films and installations. I guess before the lockdown I was already working in this direction by establishing an Indigenous Media Collective in the Pan-Amazon region together with Inga, Siona, Awa, KamënstáQuillacinga, and Nasa youth leaders, and artists Lydia Zimmermann and Camilo Pachón from Ambulante Colombia. The work we have created so far is exactly that: a historical account of what is going on in ancestral territories, a cinematic rendering of a complex biocultural landscape; and an entry point to ancestral geophilosophies from the Pan-Amazon regions.  

I think most artists would agree that aside from event cancelations, economic pressure, or complicated logistics around childcare, the quarantine didn’t affect our experience of time in the studio or the flow of our creative process. In the creative world, most things take time and need to follow their own course. This is why the impact of the quarantine period for me will be felt in other aspects of life, where there is so much pressure coming from the capitalist productive machine that we live in. I just wish this cocooning experience left in us a lasting urge for care and attention, reminded us that we might need more time to process and understand life events, that 24 hrs. news channels are at least 23 hrs. of unsolicited opinion or pure rambling, and that engaging in a deep and transforming conversation implies a big compromise and actual reciprocity.   

Portrait © Felipe Castelblanco
Portrait © Felipe Castelblancos

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